Womensphere Pan-European Summit 2011

Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Video Statement
Said Business School, Oxford University, Oxford, United Kingdom
Washington, DC
October 21, 2011

As prepared for delivery

I thank you so much for this honor. It means the world to me. My only regret is that I can’t be in Oxford with all of you. Oxford University has been educating world leaders for some 800 years and the Said Business School has been making its own significant achievements under the leadership of Dean Tufano. I am so pleased that you are especially committed to equipping women for leadership in business and in society. I want to salute Valerie Keller and Analisa Balares for their considerable efforts in organizing this important summit so aptly focused on “Creating the Future.” I admire the work you are doing to empower women to unleash their potential, to create opportunities and to forge networks of connection around the globe. It is especially heartening – and not surprising – to see so many successful women paying forward the investments that were once made in them by giving back and empowering others who’ve been denied opportunity – some solely because of their gender. Secretary Clinton often reminds us that “Talent is universal but opportunity is not.” Thank you for growing greater opportunities.

Women entrepreneurs offer people everywhere so much promise. We know that investments in women correlate positively with a country’s general prosperity. Today there is a mountain of research and data that show that women’s contributions are vital to economic growth. Every year the World Economic Forum releases the Gender Gap Report, which assesses the progress that countries have made toward gender equality. It looks at the gap between men and women in a given country on four indicators: access to health and education, economic participation and political empowerment. Where the gap is closest to being closed – where men and women are more equal – those countries are more prosperous and competitive. It is no wonder that the World Bank – which just released a significant Women’s Development Report – recognizes that “gender equality is smart economics.” Studies show that women-run small and medium-sized enterprises are particular accelerators of economic growth, one of the highest yield investments to grow GDP. This is true in my country, in England, and it is true around the world. In fact, women-owned enterprises often have a better growth rate and a better loan payback rate.

But as many of you know, women’s success is so often hindered by barriers that undermine their ability to start or to expand their business. Barriers like lack of access to markets, to training, to mentors, to technology. Women are often harmed by corrupt practices and discriminatory laws and regulations. In some places, they are denied inheritance rights and property rights or women cannot conduct transactions without the permission or participation of male family members. Access to finance is perhaps the major challenge to women for business growth everywhere.

Fortunately, the micro-credit revolution has lifted up millions and millions of poor women around the world and enabled them to earn an income, support their families, and pay back their loans at close to 100% repayment rates. I remember a woman who told me how she had longed for a high-powered sewing machine, but did not have the means to purchase one. She said that she felt like "a bird released from its cage" when she got the loan that enabled her to finally get the machine, grow her business, and pay back her loan and even send her children to college on the proceeds from her thriving business! Microcredit and the growing benefits of access to financial inclusion have increasingly enabled the poor to safely save portions of their incomes, small as those savings may be, yet not to underestimated! I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo not too long ago and some of the women running micro businesses told me how they had come together to provide microcredit to others from their pooled savings and were now lending with interest.

Micro businesses make an enormous difference in transforming the lives of the poor, but it is the small and growing businesses that are the missing middle – the great enterprise potential for growth and jobs creation. Access to finance for SME’s has been a bigger challenge, and it mostly has to come from commercial lending institutions. Without it, entrepreneurs cannot fulfill their dreams, no matter how good their business plans, ideas and potential.

I remember several years ago traveling with the then-First Lady Hillary Clinton who was meeting with a group of businesswomen – two of whom had started what is today a very successful technology firm, but they almost didn’t make it. They had an exceedingly difficult time procuring the capital they needed to create their business. They told Mrs. Clinton something I have never forgotten. They said, “The best ideas die in bank parking lots.”

The United States is committed to helping women knock down the barriers that too often stymie growth and limit opportunity. President Obama created the position I hold as the U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues because he recognizes that we cannot hope to tackle the most difficult challenges that confront the world – whether they have to do with the economy, with peace and security, or with the environment and so much more – unless women participate fully on every level of society in every nation around the world.

It was gratifying to see the Nobel Peace Prize Committee recognize the work of three extraordinary women for their efforts in peacemaking, peace-building and post conflict reconstruction – and in the process remind the world that women’s efforts are also critical to peace and security. I have learned in my travels that despite our differences, women all over the world have far more in common than that which separates us.

Despite the challenges, women are on the frontlines everywhere advancing economic, political and social change. Secretary Clinton likes to call this “the Participation Age” – a time when every individual, regardless of gender or circumstance, is poised to be a valued player in the global marketplace. A few weeks ago, she gave a keynote address on women driving economic growth to the APEC Summit on Women and the Economy, where participants came from government and the private sector in the 21 economies of the Asia Pacific region. It is a simple fact is that no country can hope to get ahead if it is leaves half of its population behind. Moreover, as Secretary Clinton has reminded us, “If women are not accorded their rights or afforded opportunities to participate fully in their societies, global progress and prosperity will have its own glass ceiling.”

So I thank Said Business School and all for you who are participating in this summit for your commitment, service and leadership. Thank you for all you do and for all that you will do to advance economic opportunity and progress, gender equality and a better world for all. I wish you much success.